Billboards were once of little concern to Melissa Walden. The Dallas resident minded her own business, focusing on work and family, until the day a large billboard was built 100 feet from her back door. “The whole issue just hadn't crossed my mind,” she says. When she and other concerned residents approached the city council, they were told that the billboard conformed to local code and would be allowed to stay.

From that moment on, Walden became an activist. Working with Sandy Greyson, a sympathetic city council member, she prompted passage of an ordinance banning new billboard construction in the city.

Dallas is not alone in the quest to stop billboard blight. Increasingly, cities and counties across the country are waging tough battles to regulate billboards through ordinances and resident-led ballot initiatives. They face a large, well-funded industry, which argues that billboards provide necessary information for travelers and are a boon to local economies.

Looking the other way

Billboards have been a hotly contested issue for many years. In 1958, Congress passed the Bonus Act, which gave states that banned billboards along rural interstates a bonus of .5 percent of their allotted federal highway funding. And, in 1964, Lady Bird Johnson led a campaign for tough federal billboard controls, which culminated in the passage of the Highway Beautification Act (HBA). The act spurred states such as Vermont, Oregon and Maine to enact statutes of their own that have prohibited or limited billboard proliferation.

Organizations such as Washington, D.C.-based Scenic America, a billboard watchdog group, say that the HBA is flawed. As written, the act limits the construction of new billboards to commercial and industrial areas and sets up a system by which illegal billboards would be removed, but the act has proven difficult to enforce. Today, of the nearly 500,000 billboards in existence, there are more than 73,000 nonconforming billboards that remain along the nations federal highways. In 1995, states removed only about 500 billboards, according to the group.

Furthermore, a 1978 amendment to the HBA requires communities seeking to remove billboards to pay just compensation to their owners, instead of using amortization, which allows owners a grace period in which to realize profits from billboards before they have to come down. Rather than come up with the tax dollars to compensate billboard owners, many communities look the other way.

As a result, billboards continue to top buildings in cities, line scenic roads and march like soldiers along interstates. In Missouri, for example, of the 120 miles of I-70 from Columbia to St. Louis, only three rural miles are without billboards.

“Americans are getting sick to death of the commercialization of everything in sight — ads in pavement, bus shelters, draped on buildings,” says Meg Maguire, president of Scenic America. “A walk through the community should be more than a walk through the yellow pages.”

An organized industry

The billboard industry is well organized and savvy. In many battles with local governments, it has successfully launched lavish media campaigns and filed lawsuits to stop the passage of billboard control ordinances. The industry also routinely donates unused billboard space to non-profit organizations, charities or politicians, which curries favor with residents and legislators when disputes arise.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., admits that billboards are meant to draw your eye away from the road and the surrounding landscape. “Billboards [that are] done well get attention — they grab you, they make you look, they brand,” says Diane Cimine, executive vice president of marketing for OAAA. According to the organization, advertisers in the United States spent $4.8 billion on outdoor media in 1999 alone, and the industry is growing at a rate of 10 percent a year.

It is no surprise, then, that billboard owners have been able to fund litigation against mayors, cities and residents who oppose them. “This is an industry that [does not pay] road user tolls, taxes or fees,” Maguire says. “These are cash cows, they rake in the bucks — up to $40,000 a month in prime places — and [they spend it] on lobbying, litigation and largesse.”

Looking to city hall

Because of those resources, the billboard industry often prevails in court. For example, in a recent decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against East Lansing's efforts to adopt an ordinance to regulate billboards through amortization. The ordinance would have allowed billboard owners 12 years to realize profits from the billboards before they had to come down. The appellate court concluded that the ordinance constituted a “taking” of the billboard owner's private property rights.

“Our Court of Appeals has just tipped the scales of justice in favor of the billboard industry,” said former Governor William Milliken in a recent Detroit Free Press editorial. “This ruling also tips the scales against our freedom of choice. The personal right to avoid a commercial message has just dwindled.” East Lansing has since appealed to the state's Supreme Court.

With amortization outlawed in many states, a city's best bet, if it wants to regulate billboards, is to craft ordinances that bar only new construction. Still, passage of those ordinances usually requires a champion in the city council or the mayor's office.

In Springfield, Ill., Mayor Karen Hasara avoided the billboard issue until the city was named a “last chance landscape” by Scenic America. Today, Hasara is spearheading a new “Scenic Springfield” program, which regulates billboards in the city.

The Scenic Springfield plan would give owners of existing billboards five years to remove all billboards that violate the new regulations. In addition, billboards would have to be the principal user of a piece of property, meaning that they could not crowd another principal user, such as a building. Finally, billboards would be banned in all historic, residential or light-commercial zones and would be disallowed within 500 feet of any residential lot.

“These proposed standards were an outgrowth of the Springfield Strategy 2020 effort in which community [residents] identified shortcomings and ways we can address them,” Hasara says. “Now, we are seeking citizen input and comment on this proposal and other efforts to beautify Springfield.”

The billboard industry is vigorously opposing the new program. “This law would [require me to] take down approximately 90 percent of the billboards that I own in Springfield,” says Jeff Stauffer, owner of Mid-America Advertising, a local billboard company. The ordinance would be fairer if the city imposed the new rules only on new billboards, he says.

Slightly farther west, St. Paul, Minn., has passed an ordinance that strikes something of a compromise among community groups, the city and the billboard industry. The law places a permanent moratorium on the construction of new billboards but allows “special sign districts” in certain neighborhoods. Under the law, existing billboards will remain intact.

Again, the ordinance had a champion in city hall. City council member Jay Benanav, who authored the proposal (which was actually an amendment to another bill), says that its language allows the city some flexibility in monitoring old billboards while protecting the interests of the industry. “It preserves the rest of St. Paul and allows the billboard industry to continue operating,” says Benanav, who recently announced his candidacy for mayor.

In Florida, several cities have passed similar ordinances, even as the state legislature considers a bill to end the policy of amortization. Bill Brinton, vice chair of Citizens for a Scenic Florida, Jacksonville, points out that mayors can be key to billboard control efforts. “In Orlando, Mayor Glenda Hood was very strong in standing up to the industry to fulfill the promise of her city's motto — ‘a city beautiful,’” he says.

“Here are large Florida cities whose mayors care deeply for their beauty,” Brinton says. “I think Florida's scenic beauty is going to rise and fall this year on whether mayors like this are going to stand up to the billboard industry as it tries to influence the legislature.”

Taking it to the streets

Sometimes, city officials find themselves implementing the will of the people whether they want to or not. When no champion exists in city hall, residents often have turned to petitions and ballot initiatives.

Residents in Jacksonville and St. Paul, for example, had to gather petitions before recent ordinances were passed regulating billboards. “We stood on street corners for months — it was a tedious process,” says Brian Bates, a board member for Scenic America in St. Paul. “We raised $15,000 for our media campaign, but the billboard industry spent about $500,000.”

The original St. Paul ballot measure for billboard regulation lost. Eventually, however, the city elected council members who were more open to banning new billboards, and the ordinance passed.

In Reno, Nev., a similar process had the advantage of being guided by a former city official. Doug Smith had served on the Reno planning commission in the late 1980s and understood how important the billboard industry was to the city. “Given that we were a gambling town, there was pressure to let the billboard owners have their way, because the city was heavily supported by the gaming industry and tourism,” Smith says.

By 2000, Smith was chair of Citizens for a Scenic Reno, which spearheaded a drive to ban new billboards in the city. The group needed 6,790 signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and it got 7,381. “One of the reasons we were successful is we set pretty specific goals,” Smith says.

Almost immediately, the billboard industry filed a lawsuit arguing that the signatures were illegal, but the court ruled in favor of the citizen group. When the initiative came up for a vote last November, it won with 57 percent of the vote. Still, only days after the election, the city council agreed to allow 12 new billboards in the city, as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by a local billboard owner.

Smith points out that, at least in Reno, the billboard industry erred by overstating its case. In its ad campaign, the industry asserted that 5,000 people would lose their jobs if the initiative passed, a figure that was later called “false and misleading” by an independent advertising watchdog. The industry also stated that local small businesses would suffer a 20 percent reduction in revenue without outdoor advertising, which Smith also disputes. “The billboards in Reno aren't used by small businesses — they're used by cell phone and automobile companies,” Smith says. “No one has lost a job [because of the ordinance].”

In Missouri, cities had a similar fight on their hands, but with different results. In 1993, an appeals court invalidated several municipal ordinances that prohibited billboards, further weakening a state law that set liberal guidelines for the billboard industry. “We saw a feeding frenzy from the industry, with really big out-of-state companies putting up billboards, but cities and counties had virtually no control,” recalls Karl Kruse, executive director of Scenic Missouri, based in Columbia. In 1997, the group began its first petition drive, which resulted in a new ordinance that allowed cities to regulate the height and size of billboards. When they wanted to go further, however, they ran into problems.

Last November, another ballot initiative in Missouri, which would have clarified the authority of local governments to regulate billboards, was defeated by a tight 51 percent to 49 percent. The win, OAAA stated afterwards, “sends a message to other states around the country that the outdoor advertising industry is a responsible one and one that provides valuable jobs and revenue at the state and local levels.”

Kruse disagrees. “The latest numbers out of Branson [a Missouri tourist attraction] said tourism is down, and driving into Branson is now one of the ugliest drives [in the state],” he says. “The drive to Branson is very rural, but, as you drive toward it, you have a sense that it's not a rural area because of the billboards. I happen to think it's hurting our economy.”

The road ahead

As in Missouri, cities and counties in other states often are bound by overriding state laws that limit the actions they can take regarding billboards. In addition to limiting local authority, billboard lobbyists have sought state laws requiring that trees be cut down on public property if they block outdoor advertising and providing for the payment of just compensation for the removal of billboards.

Billboard lobbyists also have been at work in Nevada, and, as a result, an anti-amortization bill is now before the state legislature. “There is not enough money in Fort Knox to buy out all the billboards on federal highways,” Smith says. “If they have a nonconforming billboard, then what they want to do is move it in lieu of just compensation. So they're moving it from a space where they get $2,000 a month to a place where they get $4,000 or $5,000 a month. If the state legislature adopts [the anti-amortization bill], the cities and counties have to [give just compensation to the owners].”

Vigilance and determination are essential to maintaining local control over the issue, Smith says. Cities also must remember that even partial victories are important ones — as Melissa Walden has come to accept as she gazes at the sign in her Dallas backyard. “I may have to look at this billboard for the rest of my life,” she says, “but at least there won't be any more.”

Kim O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.